REVIEW: Shebeen (Theatre Royal Stratford East) ★★★

The Theatre Royal Staratford East, despite its boarded-up appearance due to refurbishments, is certainly still open as usual. Writer Mufaro Makubika, winner of the Alfred Fagon for best play 2017, brings us ‘Shebeen’. Set in 1950s Nottingham, the play follows Pearl and George, a Jamaican couple who hold secret, illegal parties in their house to let their Caribbean migrant friends ‘cut loose’. And boy, do they! The rum is bottomless and the music slick enough to get everyone up dancing. Like most parties though, tensions rise and racist actions lead to devastating consequences.

The set, costumes and choreography in this piece are the highlight of the production and truly celebrate the vitality of Caribbean and Jamaican culture. Designer Grace Smart dresses the characters in clean lines and bold pastel colour trends of the age. The wardrobes of the actors are particularly showcased by movement director Rachael Nanyonjo when the cast burst into dance in the first act, with Pearl and George performing a particularly saucy duet with an abundance of chemistry.

The central character in ‘Shebeen’ is Pearl, a charming and utterly absorbing presence who affectionately touches the face of everyone she comes into contact with. Martina Laird glues our eyes to the stage when they feel tempted to peter off during interminable periods of naturalistic conversation. A particular highlight is when she tells Mrs Clark, the mother of young white girl, Mary, to ‘get out of her house’ after she asked Pearl to tell Mary to leave the black man she loves. In response, the audience whooped and clapped in solidarity, giving the moment real tension.

The main plot of the piece is difficult to pinpoint, and the script, despite harbouring many golden moments, never quite reaches its full potential. It feels uncompleted, like the first half of a two-part show. The ending arrived with such abruptness, I assumed there were three acts until the actors took their bows – a shame, as the characters, in all their roundedness and vigour, felt wasted.

In spite of feeling like a work in progress, ‘Shebeen’ is a pleasant play to be in the room with and one which communicates all the harsh realities of racism which still persist today.

Reviewed by Nicole Darvill-Batten
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

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